The Google and The Presidential Election

All I am doing in this post is copying and pasting a Google resource for those interested in utilizing the election in the classroom in any way. Google has done the legwork for you:

Bring the political process to life in your classroom

It’s back-to-school season in the U.S. and social studies teachers everywhere are excited about the November elections and all of the ways that politics has evolved since even just four years ago. Technology is advancing. Internet fundraising has brought all kinds of new small donors into the political process, social networking is helping campaigns and citizens organize themselves in new ways, and YouTube, which didn’t even exist four years ago, has swept the political dialogue.

With technology producing such dramatic changes in American politics, we want to make sure it’s easy for teachers to bring some of the best Internet tools into the classroom to help students get engaged. Working with the National Student/Parent Mock Election, we’ve pulled together a site called Elections Tools for Teachers where you can find descriptions and suggested learning activities for tools like YouTube, Google Maps, Elections Video Search and Power Readers, which we announced here yesterday.

We want students to walk away from their engagement in this election with a sense of excitement about our democratic process and with the belief that their voices matter. As Gloria Kirshner, president of the Mock Election has said, “In the classrooms of today are the Presidents, Senators, Congress members and, most important, the voters of tomorrow. Whether we are sending these children to the White House or to the polls, we hope to send them with a deep understanding of ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people.'”

Please let us know if you find Elections Tools for Teachers helpful in your teaching, and we hope you’ll enroll your students in this year’s National Mock Election on October 30th.

As always, if I can assist you in implementing this in your classroom in any way, I am more than happy to help out.

I Believe

Generally, I don’t jump on the bandwagon and re-post what I find sweeping through the many education related blogs out there, but I am making an exception in this case because it follows on the theme of what we are trying to do in White Oak Independent School District. I want you to meet someone.

Dalton Sherman. 5th Grade. Dallas ISD.

When school districts prepare for teacher orientations at the beginning of the year, I am sure having a ten or eleven year old student be the primary speaker at the event never hits the radar. But in Dallas ISD this year, it did. And Dalton accepted the challenge put before him.

Dalton has guts to just be able to speak in front of nearly 20,000 educators. On a stage. By himself. That in itself truly is a gift. How many adults relish the idea of speaking in front of a small group, much less one the size of a professional sporting event audience?

So, to keep this post short and sweet where you can jump right into Dalton’s challenge for you this year, consider the fact that someone nurtured this gift of his. Someone paid attention to him and realized this potential amongst all of the other schooliness going on in the classroom.  Someone found an outlet in the classroom and set out to let him live up to his potential. Someone took a special interest in him, created a relationship, and helped foster this gift. He will tell you who that someone is. Is it you?

In the Middle and Working Our Way Out

Okay. So it wasn’t the wallpaper of Miguel Guhlin on a computer that got my middle school teachers engaged and excited on Thursday. It was something better.

MacBooks, iPod Nanos, two 165 quart all terrain Igloo coolers, and plenty of Pasco science probes. So it cost a bit to get them going, but it worked. As we rolled in the two huge coolers with boxes stacked on top of each and two rolling carts with a dozen Higher Ground laptop cases, I felt like Vanna White as I unveiled the new tools these educators have at their disposal this year. For the record, all of this was planned and ordered months before my wife ever was hired to teach 6th grade ELA (which I am extremely proud to have her in our school district now). I am already getting the “She is way better than you ever were” comments, and they are right.  🙂

Anyway…..We began with 4 GB flash drives. Each teacher received one with his or her name engraved onto it. We felt like that gave them the true ownership each of them needed to feel free to utilize the thing without fear of it being taken away or whatever. It was a hit to say the least. Michael and I had some grant funds we used for them, and the teachers thoroughly appreciated it.

Next, I handed out iPod Nanos to each table. No, it wasn’t for them to keep. They did get to help me unwrap them and got to play with them for a little bit while we discussed possible uses in the classroom. With two 15 unit docking/synch stations, they should see plenty of action even with being new to teachers. My hope is that they become in such high demand that we must buy more. This is, of course, meaning that they are being utilized in the classroom to improve content knowledge, deeper understanding, and a higher level of student engagement in the entire learning process. See, Gary Stager. I was paying attention.

Then we opened the coolers up and shared some information about the probes inside. Some may wonder why we put them in coolers. Well, we are building a 23 acre nature center (behind our elementary schools in the picture above) for all campuses to use. The coolers will make it easier to tote the tools out to the learning site while also giving some heavy duty protection to the equipment. The pneumatic tires will make them easy to roll over even big brush, rocks, and what have you. For the most part, the only folks worked up here were the science teachers, but that’s okay. I was excited, and I am an English teacher. Well, and a techy (and all of the probes had USB jacks, so that made it click for me). For me, the highlight of this part was having the sixth grade science teacher figure out what the nearly six foot long physics probe bundle was all about. Something about inertia, speed, something, and some other somethings. Truly, that baby is on its way to the high school since they are the real physics folks. That will be true of other probes we bought as well. Our middle school science teachers will be working their way through all of the science probes and helping us move them to the appropriate campus for other teachers to use. Thank goodness for those ladies, because I would have been lost on that sorting deal. I do plan to stick close and learn more about it, though.

Finally, after about thirty minutes of the other stuff, we hit the MacBooks. I had each person grab a laptop, battery (fully charged from the battery dock), and a comfy chair. Since Macs are new to our staff, I spent plenty of time walking them through the basics (icons, Finder, shortcuts, the cool Ctrl+two finger zoom function). We spent a few minutes in each of the iWorks apps: Numbers, Keynote, and Pages. Then we hit the popular suite of iLife: iMovie (I downloaded HD since no one can figure out 08 anyway), iPhoto, iTunes, and Garageband. I showed them how easy it was to record a lecture in Garageband, add a quick audio clip to the beginning as if it were a news show, and export it out as an MP3 file. Then we uploaded it to the Apple podcast blogs we use. I think they were relieved seeing that it was as simple as sending an email. I showed them how easy it was to do the same thing in iMovie with the built-in iSight camera to make a video podcast. Cool enough. They really enjoyed the part where I had one of the teachers use iChat in the back of the room and call into my session. Once they saw how easy that was, I think their attention got even stronger with the Mac. Everyone loves a good video chat.

Throughout the session, I stuck to the same mantra: You now have a very powerful tool in your hands to create, captivate, engage, enthrall, and any other snazzy verb you can think of. You can capture priceless learning with the students. You can provide resources for absent students or those needing remediation. You can allow the kids to teach you.  You can allow yourself AND the students to publish. They NEED a creative outlet to do this.

That is my son. Give him a MacBook (or Legos or piles of scrap whatever) and a little instruction, and he can create like crazy. He will show you how his understanding goes beyond what he might could show you on paper or on a state test. That is my son. He will show you how the right brain can engage in ways the left never can by sharing beautiful bits of himself that his teachers, his mother, and I helped to create by teaching and loving him. That’s my son. He will WOW you with his awesomeness of a sponge-like brain, not by regurgitating facts on a score sheet, but by composing his own score sheet to share with the world. That is my son.

It’s also your son (or daughter). We must provide new outlets for kids to practice and publish their learning. They need to showcase their content knowledge in some way other than a bubble sheet, a test proctor, and a newspaper article reporting the results. When they publish personally in these new ways, there is immediate feedback and reflection and relearning. When their knowledge is judged by one day and a few hours on a test, the only thing they get there is a snapshot result. They do not use that to motivate themselves to learn more, to discuss the successes and failures with peers, or as an opportunity to find a mentor to further their knowledge. The most they get is either a party or extra tutoring (my rant on the state, by the way, not the teachers).

This is the driving force behind what we are doing at our middle school. We are working toward building electronic portfolios (WordPress MU) that the students can upload these types of products to where they can showcase their learning and skills. They can build on them and add new ones. They will be able to edit, recreate, share, and even take the portfolio with them when they leave our district. They will be the models for the campuses they left and the ones they head to. Their expectations will be higher than ever before when they enter a new classroom. They need the freedom to produce, reflect, rethink, and react in their learning. This is their chance. This is an opportunity to collaborate with peers and teaching faculty at a whole new level.

While we work through this process, I will share more of my reflections in this blog.

I want to leave you with the same video I left my middle school staff with (and I shared back in June on this blog). My wife said it tied everything together beautifully (not consciously planned on my part).  My lead in (off the cuff) was that we are the ultimate force in the classroom. How we prepare and present ourselves to our students is ultimately how they decide whether they turn themselves on or off for learning when they enter our doors. Is our focus on teaching the same year of instruction for thirty plus years? Or is it to refocus how we perceive actual learning with today’s youth and offer and foster an environment that promotes their full participation in the process with an open mind and an innovative spirit?

intro_me

Photo Credits: (1) Miguel Wallpaper – me, taken at TCEA office in Austin during Thinkfinity training; (2) Google Earth snapshot of WOISD – me in Google Earth; (3) “I like my voice” – Peter H. Reynolds, scribbled on a napkin if I remember the story correctly.

Learning and Buying In


I realize that picture may not look like much to most folks. It is JUST a Google calendar after all. What it represents to me, though, is a much bigger accomplishment. Buy-in. I was able to work with our intermediate campus staff today with a number of technology tools. The best part is that the day was pretty much set aside as learn what you want. They came to me or their peers and asked for help and got it. We covered web pages in Joomla, importing contacts in Google Apps, setting up a Blackberry to check the school email (still working on that one, sorry phone), adding attachments to emails, and more. It was great to watch the teachers going around and helping each other when it was really not that way one year ago. They are really feeling comfortable with utilizing the tools and showing each other what they are doing with them, and I could not be more proud.

Our elementary computer lab teacher decided that she wanted a better way to reserve the computer lab that would eliminate mix-ups as well. She asked about the Google Calendar that is in our Google Apps for Your Domain system that houses our school district’s email system. Perfect. I showed her how to add events with details, how to invite the campus staff so they can add their own, how to subscribe to the calendar and even receive a morning agenda in her email box, and then add the link to her webpage (Our Joomla site is not playing well with embeds for some reason right now). She was off and running. (NOTE: She even told me she needed to “Pimp my link!” That just isn’t natural coming from an elementary teacher, especially one who I have taught two of her kids over the years.) Immediately a reservation was placed by the third grade. She showed others during the day how to add the calendar to their account and edit at will. Yes! Now, if I can only convince her to go to the other campuses and share that with those computer lab teachers. Just maybe.

Thank you White Oak Intermediate for starting the school year off on such a positive note! Looking at what you folks are doing with your web pages to keep the kids and parents interested, informed, and excited is pretty cool. I look forward to even more great stuff this year!

Constructing Modern Knowledge, Tinkering, Homework, and What I’ve Learned


I have actually started this post a number of times in my head. I am not sure why it has been hard for me to get out, but it has. I am glad that it has. That just means I have been pondering it, and we all know when I ponder it’s a good thing. Right?

Let me set up quickly what has been fascinating about it. My son asked to spend a week at Camp Invention in Coppell, TX. We wondered what it would be like for him since it was sponsored by the US Patent Office and the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He spent the week tinkering. He loved it and learned tons about thinking his way through processes. Then I headed off to New Hampshire and a week with Gary Stager, Sylvia Martinez, Paul R. Wood, Peter H. Reynolds, and Alfie Kohn just to name a few at the Constructing Modern Knowledge Conference. What the week boiled down to for me was about giving kids time to tinker and learn. I returned home for a few days and then headed to Austin for Thinkfinity training. First site that pops up for me during the investigation time? Yep, more tinkering: Invention at Play.

Now, I’m not going to go to the extremes like some and say the entire day should be letting the kids tinker. There has to be direct instruction for them to build their learning from. What I will say, though, is that kids DO need time to tinker (I say tinker because play just doesn’t cut it even though the kids will think they are playing). They do some of their best learning while tinkering and exploring. Why can we not give them concepts and send them to the Lego bins to come back with a contraption that demonstrates the concept learned? Application is a much higher level than just comprehension, and create is the HIGHEST level of the new Bloom’s chart. We as educators have always said that if you can teach it effectively, then you understand it. Why not let the kids take a concept, create something with that knowledge, and then teach it to the class sharing why it is applicable to what they designed and built?

Does this take time away from direct instruction? Sure, but isn’t the learning at a deeper level allowing us to not have to reteach the concept again and again? Besides, when a student asks about the concept later in the school year, some other student in the class is going to say, “Remember?! That is when so and so built the ____ and_____.” Get it? The kids are making the learning connections and reteaching each other. Sound like real life? It’s getting there. I would say it would benefit our kids much more and prepare them for the Dell’s, Eastman’s, militaries, and Apple’s of the world to hire folks who have spent time trying out things, failing, rethinking, retrying, failing, rethinking, retrying, … You get the picture. Shall we bring up Google’s 20% rule of employment once again? Sounds like it should be a mantra for education (for students and teachers).

Now, one thing that struck me as odd at Constructing Modern Knowledge was my reaction to Alfie Kohn. Many consider him a great mind in education. My less than enthusiastic reaction wasn’t due to the fact that he failed to answer a simple question about his college degree (I asked what it was in and he told me it would take too long to explain. What?!?). It was more on the fact that, while he has great ideas, he fails to recognize how the system works (or more likely refuses to accept). The gist of his argument is that teachers created the system we are in and are the only ones who can fix it.

Well, not exactly. Neither of us can argue the other in the ground over it because it is from opinions based on a number of facts that we draw our views. My view is that teachers did not make the problem. We followed the law that told us to prepare students for tests that the state would be giving students. How we respond to that law controls how we teach in our classrooms. Some lend themselves to a more test-prep environment, while others have a more open structure where students do more authentic work with less worksheets involved.  But, nonetheless, we are following the law here. Not giving the tests is NOT an option if we wish to maintain employment.

Alfie’s view seems to be that if teachers just decide to change, then the system will be forced to change. Uhm, idealist? In my view, yes. Alfie says that those of us who praise our students for doing well on these tests are just adding to the problem. Yeah, I did not like that comment either. Instead, he feels we should ask the student…ready for this… “So how do you feel (or what do you think) about your grade?” My complimenting the student is doing harm while his analyzing them like a psychiatrist is good? Really? I hear his parenting books are built around this same type of concept. I do not think I will be buying or reading them anytime soon. I like the way my wife and I parent just fine. To turn our son into some walking research project just doesn’t do anything for me.

Let me say that Alfie’s views of what should happen in the learning realm of the classroom are pretty strong. I disagree with his view on homework where he boldly states that there has NEVER been research that shows that homework is beneficial. I am guessing these items do not count as research to him (personal note: Glad to see Marzano agrees with me that Kohn misrepresents the research findings). One of those links even researched the research and found that out of twenty studies completed on the effectiveness of homework, fourteen showed benefit while only six did not.  I do want to state that I think a little homework is good, though. Twenty math problems over the same concept is too much if the same can be done in five. If the kid is getting the five wrong, why keep adding to the problem with fifteen more? At the same time, five problems is enough to know whether the students gets it or not.  Reading self-selected pieces of literature for ten or fifteen minutes a night is a good thing. Minimum numbers of AR tests (or points or whatever) per week is not. And so on. You get the drift.  Basically, hours of homework every night is ridiculous, but limited practice of subjects is not. Let’s just not let it take over the family life. No, I have no intention of getting into a debate with Alfie about these things. I am just reflecting on what I heard and my views in comparison. I have a job and family to attend to. Spending countless hours (more) finding ammunition for a debate that will effectively go nowhere is a waste of both of our times.  He is obviously set and secure in his opinion. Same here. Moving on.


But what Alfie says about kids needing time to explore the concepts they have learned (with thinkering and such) is spot on. We learn more when we have that type of time. If we choose the object, then we are going to be more engrossed in the learning that goes with it. Deeper levels of learning, too.

So what did I get out of all of my weeks of travel in July and early August? How about this:

  • Gary Stager’s favorite phrase is, “So what?”
  • His views on ANYTHING can upset anyone with thin skin, but he does it to make you think more deeply.
  • He and Sylvia have a lot of Legos.
  • Lego Robotics make great learning tools outside of the competitions many students enter. Just unstructure the learning around them and turn the kids loose.
  • Alfie Kohn has some good ideas on student learning (overlooking the homework issue here) and some warped views on child rearing (IMHO) and student motivation.
  • He also thinks teachers control the entire education world. That will only happen when teachers start voting en masse.
  • Peter H. Reynolds is one awesome dude. I would love to have him visit our students in person or virtually. He has an amazing talent and a wonderful personality the students and teachers will love.
  • I wish Peter spent a few hours teaching us to be artists even when we think we are not. Release the right brain, folks.
  • John Stetson is one very bright person. It was good to have someone around who knows gear ratios like the back of his hand.
  • Dr. Cynthia Solomon (from OLPC fame) is one of my new favorite people. Ever. She is like a female Gary Stager with a grandma’s personna (don’t be mad, Cynthia). Her quick wit, challenging questions, and wonderful insight make her one great person to be around. Besides, sarcasm befits a Harvard grad.
  • The most important take away is that we MUST give our students more time to tinker and think their way through the learning and creative processes. It will take time for them to get use to the opportunity, but they will hate it if you take it away. Consider it. If we go from no time to even one hour a week, it will be progress.

I look forward to my continuing conversations with the great folks I met at all of these events. Sylvia and I already have a few plans in the works to better prepare our middle school science students through reflecting on their learning in a meaningful manner. I cannot wait to share that project as we move through it. I expect Gary will throw in a few “So what?” ‘s just to drive me forward even more. In fact, I count on it.

Image Credits:
I took them all at the MIT Museum – 1. Great Wall of Ideas 2. Mantra for the Great Wall of Ideas 3. Hologram at MIT Museum

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Flickr takes even more museums online

Paul R. Wood at the historic Rutt’s Hut in Clifton, New Jersey

From the Flickr site:

The key goals of The Commons on Flickr are to firstly show you hidden treasures in the world’s public photography archives, and secondly to show how your input and knowledge can help make these collections even richer.

You’re invited to help describe the photographs you discover in The Commons on Flickr, either by adding tags or leaving comments.*

You are going to find photos from some really awesome resources. How about:

Flickr invites you to be a part of the experience by adding descriptions to images that you are familiar with. Some photos that have previously been listed with no information have had the back stories filled in by either the person in the picture or family members who were familiar with the history of the photo. This could prove valuable to those studying writing, art, history, humanities, or geography. I am sure there are many more content ties than that.

In case you are wondering what the above pic has to do with this post, only two people would know the back story (and a colorful one it is) about this image shot at the world famous Rutt’s Hut. An 80 year old historic location like that wants the stories to live on. Flickr is allowing just that through the photo history offerings from these museums. We should take advantage of the first person narratives many of them offer. I would say many or all of them would make for great story starters for young writers who are stuck or just like the challenge of creating their own back stories.

Oh Wiki You’re So Fine…

Having used wikis with my middle school students, I can say the transition is not a difficult one. They enjoy the opportunity to use technology, but they really appreciate the opportunity to work on a document from anywhere with the help of others regardless of being together or separate.

I remember a recent project. I specifically told this curious bunch of students I had in certain class that I was subscribed to the wiki via RSS and received all updates and changes. Furthermore, the wiki would tell me who changed what and when and also allow me to revert to previous versions. Anyone caught defacing others pages would be using School 1.0 to get his or her project finished. I had not seen any issues with the wiki through the first week, so I thought I was home free and the world was a happy place (my world anyway).

Then late Saturday night happened. I started getting notifications hand over fist about edits occurring on one certain site. Instead of looking at the changes in the feed window, I quickly navigated over to the wiki to shut down access to whatever terrible thing was taking apart one of my group’s hard work. I knew the offender had logged in with a student ID, and I was sure to confront him/her about it on Monday. So, I get to the wiki and start looking around the pages being reported as edited. Nothing. They looked fine to me. I could not see the difference from what I would have expected at this point.

So I went into the history to see what the kid was up to. And then it hit me. Editing. He was editing. This ESL, only in the country three years, never talks in class, speaks broken English kid was editing the work of his peers (one of which was one of my top students). He cared enough about his group’s work and its appearance to the public that he wanted it right. Were all of his corrections accurate? No. But most were, and he was doing English VOLUNTARILY on a SATURDAY night. That is what wikis and collaborative work is all about. I shut my machine down to go to bed knowing that my work had been a success. Even if he was the only one who chose to go the extra mile, he CHOSE to do it. That made it all worth it.

My students used the wiki to aide each other in weak areas. They found missing parts in their own work and asked others to help them by adding to it. Some took the initiative, others did not. But they all favored the Web 2.0 version over the School 1.0.

Online collaborative word processing sites (wikis, Google Docs, etc) allow people to share and mold and create and recreate information and ideas. It is an awesome opportunity. These people may never meet, but their ideas will. Their intellect will collide and combine in a virtual environment that will change the real world. This is powerful. Our students deserve to at least learn how to harness this power on a local basis, because after high school they will run into it on a global basis.

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